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The early beginnings of OLG’s theater program

The dust has since settled from this year’s spring musical, “Peter Pan,” and while Our Lady of Guadalupe School (OLG) teacher Sam Retelas sometimes mentions the grassroots movement to get the drama program off the ground in its early stages, not everyone knows it started with some borrowed props, helping hands and a heaping spoonful of love.

Retelas notes there was no drama program present before the first show took the stage in 2004 with “Cinderella.”

“I always felt there was something about drama that brought the best out of kids,” Retelas said. “When they are onstage, they thrive. I wanted them to enjoy being noticed as an individual and feel good about themselves.”

Inspired to bring performing arts to the little school in Fremont, Retelas searched for a script and announced open roles for anyone who wanted to participate. About 30 kids showed up to audition from the school’s kindergarten through eighth-grade students, and rehearsals commenced.

But Retelas – lovingly known as Mr. Sam on campus – didn’t want it to be just another performance in the multipurpose room with paper hats and a few songs. He wanted it to be like a real play, and the undertaking was one that came with some bumps and lessons learned.

That first year, OLG managed to secure a performance date on the stage at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont, and Retelas took the load of running auditions, practices, sets and costumes, with the help of a few parents, who also saw the benefit of a theater program. But mostly, he ran it on his own, even making up the dances.

“I ran around everywhere, asking to borrow sets from (my church) and costumes from a theater in Hayward,” he said.

Laughing, he shared the story about the night of the performance and how a broken stage door was mysteriously closed – despite the warning to keep it open – and the students were trapped in the wings as the clock ticked for their next costume change.

“Everyone was freaking out, because they each had to get into different costumes,” he explained. “And other actors were onstage at the time, so they had nowhere to go.”

One of the fathers had to take the hinges off the door, and “Cinderella” came together in the end; the audience never knew, and the students had unlocked not only the door, but also a new level of achievement: their first ever theater production on a real stage.

After that, things really took off, Retelas said. Kids wanted to be a part of the theater magic, and he ordered the script for “Wizard of Oz” and recruited the help of other teachers with dance and theater backgrounds – teaching aid and librarian Tracie Colon and seventh-grade teacher Bonnie Cantlon. He also landed a reservation for the Ohlone Theater, where the play is performed to this day, and music teacher Francine Zeppa recently joined the crew to help with music. With more hands on deck, the event is now a smoother one, and new volunteers have formed the backbone of its success.

Now, the play pulls in about 140 students, who put on full musical productions unlike any found in elementary schools around the bay. And with each performance, there are always alumni who return for a taste of nostalgia and a visit with Mr. Sam.

“About five years (after the door incident),” Retelas said, “a group of girls returned, and one of them finally confessed she had been the one to shut the door! It took her five years to tell me!”

For more information about the theater program at OLG, contact the school office at 510-657-1674 or contact Mr. Sam at sretelas@csdo.org. To view a slideshow of the most recent performance, visit http://olgweb.org/school-services/theatre-drama-program/.

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